It could be said that the 21st Century is the Century of the Vampire. Between True Blood, The Vampire Diaries and Twilight, there is more blood-sucking fantasization going on in popular media right now than at any time since the early 1980s. Bedbugs don’t dream about sucking this much blood. There are candy confections being sold right now in stores everywhere in packages resembling medical blood storage bags. Inside is a sticky, red (and one presumes, sweet) syrup. The stuff is called “Blood.” Children eat this. Think about that for a second.
Then again, the vampire’s undead companions aren’t exactly taking the century off. Some faring better than others, of course. Wolfman made a half-hearted attempt at a comeback, which was largely forgotten (but, yes, it did happen) and the Mummy hasn’t been seen or heard from since Brendan Fraser’s costar moved on (and he didn’t). But the real star of the also-undead-but-not-a-vampire Century 21 resurgence has been the zombie. From videogame to comic book to movie and television show, zombies, like vampires, are everywhere in the Ots.
What does it all mean? Well, consulting the “What Your Terror Fantasy Means” spectrum, zombies are, alternately, symbols of our paranoia regarding incurable diseases (ebola, swine flu) and manifestations of our terror of a large, illiterate, yet strangely resilient enemy bent on eradicating our way of life (Islamic jihadists). Vampires, on the other hand, also have a foot in the “germ phobia” wading pool, but that has more to do with AIDS and that disease’s transmission via bodily fluids. The terror that the vampire more firmly taps into, however, is class warfare. Specifically the tendency of the aristocratic elite to literally suck the rest of us dry, i.e. “Wall Street vs. Main Street.” By that token, Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps may be the best vampire movie ever made, and Gordon Gecko, the best vampire since Nosferatu.
You’re not going to see a lot of Wolfman movies in the near future because that monster’s idiom is as representative of the “scary” little folks, with their tendency to revert to violence in the night. This is why the Wolfman’s bane is silver, projected from a mechanical device no less. Ingenuity and largesse are the keys to beating back that heathen monstrosity, but with the price of silver currently at about $30 per ounce, Wolfman fighting is going to have to wait until the effects of the 2008 recession have themselves receded.
So what about the Mummy? What’s his excuse? The return of Mummies to the land of the living (and the subsequent murder and mayhem) has always represented the Western world’s fear and fascination with the mysterious and unfathomable Middle East. Errant plunderers unearthing ancient powers beyond their comprehension, in other words. This fire was stoked in the 1930s and 40s when the famous British adventurers were, literally, unearthing tombs everywhere they stepped, recovering artifacts from a time before recorded history. It certainly didn’t hurt the Mummy legend that a number of these tombs contained ancient pathogens which, owing to the dim understanding of medicine at that time, seemed to be a curse laid upon those disturbing the Mummy’s rest.
The recent Mummy films starring the aforementioned Brendan Fraser can therefore be considered as much as warning against American imperialism as anything else. “Be careful mucking about in the Middle East,” they seem to say. “For you never know what you might awaken.” Today, that warning having gone unheeded, we can hardly claim to say there’s any mystery about it. We know full well what terror we could unleash in the Middle East – we’ve unleashed it, and it dogs us to this day.
Yet none of this explains the peculiar nature of today’s vampire cults. As popular as vampires remain among entertainment junkies of all ages, it’s the teens and tweens who are currently being seduced by the creatures of the night, and in numbers that would terrify even Van Helsing. As oblivious as most young adults tend to be to matters of social and financial terror, this can’t be vampire as representation of greed. So what is it? Is it, once again, a rampant fear of AIDS and other communicable diseases? I don’t think so.
Although AIDS has yet to be completely cured, modern medicine has at least devised a stranglehold for the disease. The survival rate for AIDS patients is climbing, and the rate of HIV infections developing into full-blown AIDS is dwindling. Young people in the Western world have therefore rejoiced accordingly, stimulating a resurgence of “free love” culture. Sexual activity among teens (and tweens), while currently down from an all-time high in the late 1990s, is still at a rate unheard of since the Sunset of the Age of Aquarius. According to the Guttmacher Institute, 70% of teenagers have had sex before they’re no longer teenagers, and, perhaps even more shockingly, use of contraceptives is decreasing in-line with the increase in sexual activity. According to the CDC, roughly half of high school age teenagers have had sex, with about 14% of those kids reporting having already had four “or more” sexual partners. Naturally, parents and community leaders are “shocked.”
In light of current teen and tween “socialization trends,” it’s hard not to view the rise of teen vampirism as both a celebration of and a protest against uninhibited sexuality. That becoming a vampire equals losing one’s innocence of youth (i.e. virginity) and that as intoxicating as the idea may seem at first blush, it is a decision that must be weighed carefully. Once pricked, in other words, you will never be the same.
It’s fitting, then, perhaps that so near to Valentine’s Day, I am given cause to write about the most sexualized of all the monsters, the vampire, for this week’s issue of The Escapist, “Bloodsucking Freaks.”
In the issue, Echo Bazaar writer Chris Gardiner examines the cliché of the serial killer; Adam Gauntlett delves into the causes for vampires’ cultural longevity; Fintan Monaghan covers the rise of vampirism in Japan and Richard Dansky, the writer central to the “Tom Clancy” videogames, gives us the contrarian opinion: why zombies are better. Enjoy!